Monday, October 06, 2008

Happy in Krabi

After Pim moved out Saturday morning, and my date in the afternoon stood me up, I decided it was time to leave town. With the latest edition of Lonely Planet’s Thailand’s Islands & Beaches as my guide, I caught an evening Thai Airways flight to Krabi, a small town on the peninsula between Burma and Malaysia, the gateway to the islands of the Southern Andaman Coast.

Before leaving Bangkok, I had a heart attack moment. Several hours before the plane was due to leave, I discovered that my ATM card was missing. I had used it in the morning to take out cash for the ticket at a travel agency inside the Tesco Lotus complex. Once before in Antigua, Guatemala, I had left a card in the machine, but a half hour later had rushed back to find the guard had saved it for me. This time several hours had passed and I panicked. Without the card I was nearly broke. At the bank next to the ATM machine, my English was useless and I mimed my distress. The manager tried to tell me it must still be in the machine. No, I said, the machine didn’t eat it. I forgot it. He requested that I wait while he get the key to open it. An exercise in futility, I thought. But my card was there, inside the machine, a miracle. Joy knew no bounds.

This was the second close call recently. Two weeks ago, getting out of a taxi, I heard a sound but ignored it. A few moments later, I patted my back pocket: no wallet. Immediately I realized the sound was my wallet falling out on the floor of the taxi. On the street were dozens of taxis all looking the same. I ran after one, shouting. Amazingly, it was the right one. I opened the door and picked up my wallet, while visions of disaster averted flitted through my head. Somebody up there must like me.

So I arrived in Krabi with wallet intact, and with ten days to forget my troubles back in Bangkok. Even though this is the last month of the slow season and political conflict in Thailand has scared tourists away, the plane was almost full. I sat next to a Thai woman reading a local version of Obama’s autobiography. The desk clerk from City Hotel came to the modern airport with her husband and young son to pick me up. Since it was dark I couldn’t see much, but after checking in I went walking. There are some bizarre sculptures of cavemen on the streetlights at this intersection, for no discernible reason. And there is a beautiful new temple being built on a hill above the city. If there were entertainment venues, I didn’t find them. Back in the room, I dipped in to my vast collection of American TV comedies (“30 Rock,” “The Office” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) for amusement.

By the time Pim finally left for good, I thought I’d gotten used to our separation. We’d been rehearsing it for weeks. She was a remarkably efficient packer. Everything was in boxes and the kind of big bags shop sellers use. I told her that I wanted her to manage my next move. Despite my farewell letter saying I didn’t want to see her any more, she insisted on a final evening together. We laughed and snuggled on the couch together and it was like our early courtship. Then, in the morning, she walked out of my life, to the apartment she’s rented two blocks away. While I’m gone she’s watering my plants, cooking in my kitchen and watching TV. She sent me an SMS to say that she feels less alone with the little stuffed Doremon I gave her. Something tells me that it’s not over yet.

Yesterday morning I got up early and had an omelet and coffee at the May & Mark Café. Across the river I could see the mangrove trees that thrive on salt water, their interconnected roots forming islands. In the distance were two large karsts, the limestone rock formations that give the South Andaman coast its distinctive geological character. Think of them as stoney redwoods. After breakfast, I took a song-tao (small pickup with two rows of seats) to Ao Nang, the long white beach a 20-minute ride west of Krabi. There was construction everywhere as the area continues to recover from the 2006 tsunami. The sea view was beautiful with karst islands in the distance, but the beachfront businesses along the Ao Nang stripmall were without any character, a holiday fantasy world catering to tourists.

So I bought a ticket for the long-tailed boat ride to Railay, just around the coastal corner but surrounded by cliffs and inaccessible by car. It’s actually a tiny ithumus with beaches on the east and west sides. We arrived on the white sands of Hat Rai Leh West and I sipped a cappuccino (110 baht, outpricing even Starbucks) at the Flame Tree Restaurant while observing the gorgeous beach scene. Later I walked along a paved path through the jungle to Hat Rai Leh East which was mostly mud and filled with mangroves. Every inch of land, however, was developed or under construction. I hiked up to the peace-sign-decorated Stone Bar with a view out to sea. Later I returned to the west side for lunch on the terrace of the Railay Bay Resort.

It’s easy to get to Railay but hard to leave. The long-tail boat skippers doze in the shade of the palms until at least seven passengers want to return to Ao Nang. Paradise dims a bit when you sit for an hour waiting to leave. I watched backpackers hike up the beach and bikini-clad swimmers (some who love their food should have worn more clothes) frolic in the tepid water until I was ready to conjure up a tsunami to cleanse the beach. Clearly my meditation practice is shot. Finally, the five of us waiting not so patiently were offered a deal: pay 200 baht more for the missing two and we could leave. Each of us forked up 40 more baht and we were off to the mainland.

In the evening as the sun set over the mangroves, I walked the streets of Krabi looking for dinner. A ladyboy in red tried to attract my attention across from the Old West Bar (shades of Gary Cooper). Many of the sales girls in the night markets wore scarfs. This is Muslim country. After browsing through the large paperback book collection at Pakaran, I settled on spaghetti at a pizzeria.

Today I take the boat to Koh Phi-Phi and after a few days will move on to Koh Lanta before returning to Krabi for my flight home on October 15th. Hopefully the anti-government PAD protesters will not close the airport as a sign of their dissatisfaction (two of their leaders were arrested for treason yesterday and they are not happy).

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