Many of you may remember the entertaining and cumbersome first installment of my week-long journey through Thailand. If you haven’t read yet, catch up here. Like I mentioned before, sometimes brutal honesty makes you plenty of enemies, but that is a risk I’m willing to take.
The next morning we were awoken to the sound of the phone ringing – the concierge. Our tour bus had arrived. We were about to embark on a long, seemingly endless day of travel down south to Koh Samui, but had we known beforehand how long the midnight train was to Koh Samui via Surat Thani, we wouldn’t have signed up for a day-long bus tour of rural Thailand tourist sites.
The tour van pulled up to our hostel and Madeline, Jess and I were the last three people to pile in with our suitcases, backpacks and luggage. Our van was jam-packed with Westerners, luggage up to their throats, and none of us knew where we were going. Some poor newlywed couple sat next to a teetering pile of luggage which threatened to topple onto them and crush their noble dreams for a future together.
This pilgrimage, it was clear, was not meant for the capricious traveler, the independent type who lusted to blaze their own trail. All of us tour-goers were jammed like sardines in the bus and stuck for hours with no getting out while the maniacal driver curved out of Bangkok and into the rural abyss.
Jess and Madeline had struck up a conversation with a young American girl from California who just finished her tenure teaching English in South Korea. She was talking about her experiences and travelling around Asia. She admitted that South Korea wasn’t “as fun” as an experience as she thought it would be, but she did love Japan. It was obvious she didn’t much care for Thailand.
“This country is just one big tourist trap! Every where you go, someone’s just trying to sell you something,” she complained.
I was inclined to agree with her based on what I had seen and experienced thus far. I had flashbacks of our tuk-tuk scam runaround. I knew that the experiences we were having were partly our fault. This is what I got for trying to cram a trip to Thailand in a week. Anywhere you go for only a week you’re likely to suffer, either knowingly or unknowingly, falling victim to a stereotypical tourist trap.
Our van shook onward and I watched people pass us on motor bikes against the swampy rice field backdrop. I was haunted by the severity of the scenery – the rice fields a poignant, verdant green, the sky overcast and the air thick with exhaust.
We finally arrived at Amphawa Floating Market, a rich cultural experience, easily turned tourist trap if you spend your time shopping, not eating. You will see the same souvenir you will find anywhere in Bangkok, the vendors attempting to earn top dollar, peddling it for as much as they could get away with.
After I blacked out and bought a pair of knock-off Birkenstocks, I made my way to the reason for the season: the floating food stalls. As far as the eye can see, large floating boats served up scrumptious goodies to hungry patrons. An old woman in a boat on the canal caught my eye – her collection of greens and spices could light up the night.
I got closer to observe her technique. She used a basket, filled it with noodles, then dunked it int a boiling pot of water. She then effortlessly put together one of the best meals of my life by preparing a bowl of fixings for the noodles: bean sprouts, cilantro, radishes, chives, chiles. She took the noodles out of their bath, poured some broth in the bowl, handed me some chopsticks and I dug in. It was a fantastically spicy little lunch.I enjoyed the smell of fish oil and relished in the sweet burn of my noodle bowl as my legs dangled freely off the side of the canal wall. While my feet flirted with skimming the water where this old Thai woman has been selling noodles probably her entire life, I realized I had the best seat in the house.
Back to haggling prices with vendors. Before waiting for our river cruise, Madeline, Jess and I had a bit more time to kill. Once you get started with shopping, it truly is hard to stop. The Thais are really good at approaching you, as if it was pre-destined that you would spend a chunk of change at their particular stall. They always knew you were coming, that you would haggle down, that you’d always meet somewhere in the middle, and before you know it, you’ve trotted away with a piece of junk you didn’t even want without even knowing what just happened. It’s a fun little sport, really. When you ask the price of a particular souvenir, they use a calculator to communicate:
“How much is this bag?” I asked
The vendor typed “800” on the calculator and showed me.
“No way!” I responded.
I took the calculator and typde “200,” offering them my rebuttal.
Before long we settle on something in the middle. It’s like gambling, but you pretty much always lose.
I felt embarrassed about some of our interactions with locals because I felt like a tourist, not a traveler. I vowed, against all costs, to not fall for the typical touristy debauchery. I’d much rather spend a good amount of time in one place, say 6 weeks to 3 months, exploring the intricacies of an area and getting to know it as a local. Instead, I swooped in for a week, got a taste, spent a bunch of money like a stupid, fat tourist, then left. It happened to me. Surely somewhere as rich and vibrant as Thailand was worthy of more than a week-long romp session at the markets, but there I was buying into the fantasy, which became my reality.
Our boat is finally ready for take-off, a welcome relief from the hot weather. We started cruising down the river and enjoyed a scenic ride. It was eye-opening. We passed rows of palms, houses along the river, in the river, built on planks ABOVE the river . . . a Southeast Asian Venice, if you will. But there weren’t any gondola drivers, just steadfast Thais chain-smoking and not really giving a shit when a particular sharp turn rendered half his passengers soaked. We passed houses with people doing their dishes outside, right in the river, soaping, rinsing, repeating. Dogs meandered about looking hopeless, laundry air-dried in the wind. Some locals waved as we passed. Most just stared.
Once the ride ended, we were escorted to a pavilion for lunch. A great thing about Thai people is that they absolutely love to eat. Makeshift food stalls adorn pretty much any corner – in the city or country – and any occasion is a good one to pop a little something in your mouth. Our spread for lunch was impressive – stir fried vegetables, cashew chicken, red curry chicken, pad Thai, pineapple pork and sticky rice. It didn’t matter that I had slurped down a bowl of noodles just an hour before. I rolled up my sleeves and dug in.
Inevitability, after getting our fill of spicy foods, we had to make a stop at the bathrooms. This was my first encounter with a squat toilet- essentially a porcelain hole in the ground you have to squat over, undoubtedly getting shredded quads in the process, a bucket of water and ladle sitting next to it to aid flushing. The idea is to squat, do your business, then ladle the water in to flush. I was flushed. How on Earth was I supposed to stay suspended for a undetermined amount of time (I did have plenty of spicy food, mind you) over a hole in the ground without making a mess? I did yoga, but nothing could have mentally or psychically prepared me for this endeavor.
Luckily, the Thais installed some Western toilets for people like me who are too ill-equipped to adjust to a hole in the ground. My run-in with the squat toilets were not nearly, over though. We would meet again on the ferry to Koh Samui and I had no choice, bumbling over waves, sea water jetting out from the hole in the ship’s bottom, to somehow balance and aim.
After lunch, it was back onto the tour bus for our next excursion: The Bridge over River Kwai. Jetlag, our old friend was starting to get to us, and it was hard to appreciate the gruesome history . At the time, we didn’t learn much about the once Death Bridge, used to haul cargo to India, built by POW and Asian slave laborers, many of whom lost their lives because of dangerous work conditions. Since the eerie visit and revisiting my photos, I’ve been able to appreciate the cultural significance of the bridge, but at the moment of our psychical presence, my brain was still somewhere sleeping in the Western world.
The next 20 hours feels like misery upon misery as we are stretched thinner and thinner, cramming more and more excursions in, hoping to eventually make it to our final destination – Koh Samui. It’s a miracle we lived through the weird and wonderful experiences that came next without losing our minds to jet-lag and exhaustion.
After putzing around the Bridge, we felt defeated and wanted the day to end as quickly as it had begun, wanting desperately to just make it to our night train so that we might finally be able to relax. No dice. Next up was a visit to the Tiger Sanctuary.
No visit to Thailand is complete without a visit to the Tiger Sanctuary. I wasn’t entirely keen on the idea of petting a drugged out 1,000 pound cat, but hey, we had to stick to the itinerary. The tigers are sedated just enough that tourists can take pictures with them. Lovely. Upon our arrival, we were corralled around and had to change clothes into neutral colors. I suppose my neon pink raincoat would inspire the cat to take a giant bite of me. I could see it now: “American tourist mauled to death at exotic feline sanctuary.” That would look good on my resume, right?
We were led into the tiger canyon, our feet muddy from the recent downpour and our spirits temporarily lifted from having a few run-ins with local animals, like a herd of boars. Jess got in line to take a picture with the tigers, nearly all of them lying there, unmoved, drugged. Their handlers poked and prodded the beautiful beasts, wrestling them a little, too. I envisioned worse-case-scenarios playing out in every direction I looked. Over 50 tigers among the half-brained tourists lined up for pictures and one stood out. This one was chained to the Earth, seemingly adverse the effects of drugs. He paced back and forth quickly, scoping out the scene. He knew who was in charge here, even if the stupid humans temporarily forgot their roles.
After Jess’ picture, we dragged our sorry asses away from the tiger spectacle and were headed on the next adventure: a completely packed, hot 2-hour shuttle bus drive to our night train that would somehow eventually deliver us to Koh Samui. As we rode through rural Thailand, I thought I was going to die. The combination of jet-lag, hot temperatures, close proximity to strangers and mind-bending experiences was enough to send me into a near panic state. I literally felt terrible. There was no down time on this trip.
We stopped at a gas station for a bathroom break an hour outside of our train stop. The rest of the crew would ride further on to Bangkok. I actually felt bad for them. Another hour on the bus and that would be the end for me. I’d either die of exhaustion or frustration, or simply become a cold-blooded killer, running through these foreign streets, wielding what? My backpack, blood-thirsty for revenge against anyone who dared put me in this situation, until of course, I happen upon a mirror and see my own sorry reflection staring back at me.
Finally we are dropped off at our train station, the three of us, our prospects looking grim. We’re starved, but still find the energy to haul our things over to the platform while Madeline inquires about our train’s departure time.
I find a bathroom and pay the troll 5 Baht to hopefully have a Western toilet to relieve myself. Could I be so lucky? YES! No toilet paper, but I have that covered with a little shimmy shake technique I picked up on the road, the little resourceful traveler that I am.
Unfortunately, our luck runs dry there.
“Our train doesn’t come for another 3 hours!,” Madeline reports.
We look around at our situation, where we’re forced to kill 3 hours before sweet, lovely salvation of sleep is reached: We are in the threshold of Hell…or at least some version of it. Trains pass by, choking us with black, hateful exhaust. *Side note: The pollution in Thailand is such a cause for concern that Jess continuously challenges the queen to take a ride around the country with her so that she can personally point out how, exactly, her people are living.*
We’re disgusted in many ways by this train station and can’t help but feel exhausted, miserable, and although we’re together (and the only Westerners in sight), our spirits have dropped to an all-time low. We feel alone.
Time crawls and we try scoping out this little town for food. We go in shifts, as someone has to watch all our belongings. Madeline agrees to sit with the bags and Jess and I venture off in search of sustenance.
It was dark as we walked down the street, a temple glistening in the distance. A nice sight to take in, but not helping our ravishing bellies. We step over a decrepit man sleeping literally in the street, not even on the sidewalk. I’m careful not to step on him, motorbikes whizzing past me, not paying attention and nearly running me over. I guess what people notice differs.
We walk up the block, make time to snap a few pictures of the temple, incredibly, given that we’re starving and crabby, on the brink of a psychotic episode. We scour the streets for a reputable place to buy something eat, giving up and resigning to our likely dinner of fish-flavored chips at 7-11 when we spot it: A food stand! With a line of locals! Score!
We have no idea what we’re ordering or where we are going to eat it, but by the looks of it, a bag of fried chicken pieces and a bowl of soup is the popular choice. When it’s my turn to order, I attempt to signal something that might resemble “1 Please!” Everyone in line turns around and stares at me. The woman/man taking order glares at me and literally has black eyes. His/her hair is spiky and reminds me of an unfriendly cat. Jess has similar “success” as she manages to order a bag of fried whatevers.
We sit and not long after, they deliver to us our treasure: DINNER, in a far-off land with no one around who knows our names or speaks our tongue. Jess and I conclude that her meal is pork rinds (who could really be sure, though) and my soup is a safe bet, but the meat is of rather mysterious origin.
Before traveling to Thailand, I studied up briefly and read a chef’s comment on Thailand’s street food: “Just bloody well eat it!” As I took the brave plunge again and again, the chef’s advice rang in my ears.
After getting our fill, we returned back to the train station, just in time to realize that our 2-hour wait-a-thon starts now.