Monday, October 11, 2010

Leaving Paradise

I said don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
--Joni Mitchell, "Paradise"

If you have an over-achieving imagination like mine, you're gone before you get there.  Paradise is a honeymoon with Nan on the lovely island of Ko Samed this past weekend, and for much of the time I could not stop thinking about what lay ahead for me in ten days time when I fly to San Francisco on a forced journey that can have no happy outcome. 

My bride would have no mopping about and was alert to my preoccupation with what could not be known.  "Thinking too much," she would notice, and she would not leave my hands free for long.  I hung on to her like the rock she has become in my life.  And she told me that no one had ever touched her back before, hugged her, as I did.  Out of all the distance and people in the world, we have somehow ended up on the same shore.  There is no rhyme or reason to our relationship, but it illuminates the dark places in our lives and gives us a comfort that I never believed possible.  Until my thoughts turn to the "what ifs" and "maybes" of what lies ahead like underwater boulders that threaten our ship.

Ko Samed is a small island with a string of white sand beaches in the north facing east that can be reached by ferry from the tiny port of Ban Phe 40 minutes away.  The bus ride from Bangkok takes about three hours.  It's much closer than the better known islands of Ko Samui and Ko Phi Phi and, to my mind, superior in many respects.  Most of the visitors appear to be Thai with foreigners in the minority (a big plus).  The water is warm and without intimidating waves and it rains less  than elsewhere (although this weekend the single dirt road was rutted with puddles that only all-terrain pickup taxis could cross).  I discovered Samed (often written as Samet) in my first year in Thailand and have been five times; Nan and I have visited the island three times, the last trip in March with her mother and nephew.

Our favorite place now is Samed Villa, a relatively upscale resort at the southern end of the beach known as Ao Phai.  Rates for the middle value room in this low season are 1800 baht, or about $60, a night.  This includes a magnificent morning buffet, with tasty Thai and western comestibles.  Although we'd reserved a "garden view" room, the bay could be seen clearly from our balcony just above the open air dining area.  For 30 baht, I got a wireless ID card that allowed me to get email on my iPod Touch, but since that dragged me away from our honeymoon I used it sparingly.  The objective was to enjoy the beach view from a shady chaise lounge, to bathe in the clear and warm turquoise water, to feast on fresh seafood at several of the restaurants spread up and down the beach, and to celebrate our decision recently to make our marriage official.

On the evening of our arrival, we returned to Ploy Talay Restaurant on Hat Sai Kaew, the island's main beach.  It's the biggest and most popular and the fresh-caught sea food is to die for.  On Saturday night we tried Seabreeze Restaurant which is quite close to our hotel.  I've become very fond of barbecued scallops in the shell since discovering them in Hua Hin, so we had them for both meals.  We also had Nan's favorite, squid, called pla mut in Thai which also covers sea creatures as different as octopus and stingray.  We ate broiled whole fish and large shrimp cooked in a peanut sauce, and, at least the first evening, toasted our health with cocktails, gin and tonic for me and a Blue Hawaiian for Nan.  The first night we ended with ice cream on the terrace of Samed Village as waves softly lapped the shore.

Beside heart-thumping trance music cranked up loud from various beach bars, the most popular entertainment on Samed are fire shows.  I suspect Ploy Talay had the first and there are dozens of videos from there on YouTube (including mine from three years ago), but now many of the sand eateries also offer shows.  We were too early at Ploy Talay for the show on Friday but at Seabreeze an incredibly talented twirler of fire risked burning with his graceful antics.  It was the night of the new moon (cleverly branded as "Black Moon") and the beach was as crowded as it would be during high season in January.  Up and down the coast people were launching sky lanterns, called khom loi in Thai, and firing off rockets from long poles. Out in the surf, several men with flashlights and nets were searching for something edible.  Vendors with portable booths were selling banana pancakes. Everywhere the semi-wild dogs and an occasional cat roamed.

On Friday night we were visited by a praying mantis that seemed attracted by the glass-covered candle on our table and refused to leave.  I'd just finished a book by Wally Lamp, The Hour When I first Believed, in which he employed a praying mantis as a symbol of hope, contrasting it with a butterfly which symbolized chaos.  The insect crawled on both of us but seemed particularly fond of the candle's heat, trying to stick his nose (nose?) into the chimney of the lamp.  While many web sites describe the praying mantis as a good omen and indicative of luck, one describe it as a "strange cannibalistic creature" that eats other insects, "with the female often eating the male during copulation."  That evening, however, I felt we were chosen, and reluctantly left it behind on the table in hopes that other diners would treat it as kindly as did we.  A half hour after we returned to our room the skies opened and the rain poured down, and I could only imagine a great scattering and clatter of plates as hundreds of people ran from the outdoor tables to see shelter from the brief storm. 

Most of the guests at Samed Villa spoke languages other than English.  I envied what I imagined were their lengthier stays, when life would slow to an easier pace.  Our two days felt too rushed.  Groups came and went with regularity, some disembarking from speed boats that cozied up to the beach, dragging their trolley suitcases across the hot sand, to our hotel or to the larger and more plebeian White Sand Resort next door.   The day's biggest task was to reserve a chaise lounge and umbrella.  People read books and dogs sought cool shade under their chairs.  A steady stream of vendors hawked massages, temporary tattoos, clothes, shawls for women, barbecued corn and chicken, and refreshing coconut drinks out of the shell.  At times there seemed more ladies offering massage than sun and sea bathers who might benefit from it.  Out in the water, kids and some adults splashed, while further out you could watch wind surfers, parasailers, and groups on a banana boat towed by a speed boat.   It was all very frantic and lazy at the same time.

Few vacationers get up early.  But an army of workers emerges from off the tourist map each day to set up the breakfast buffets and prepare for the ingress and egress of guests.  I know that monks from the temple in Na Dan where the ferries land walk up the beach just after dawn every morning to receive alms and bestow blessings on those fortunate enough to live on Samed year round.  I've seen them.  And I imagine myself living forever not far from the sand and the surf sounds.  Nan can run our resort and I will offer English lessons to the workers who must perform transactions ("May I take your order please?") in this international business language.  And then I remember that I have a ticket on a Delta Airlines flight less than two weeks away that will take me away from all this with only the slim hope of returning and making such a daydream real.

On Sunday at 1 p.m. we ended our honeymoon and boarded a speed boat which rushed us to Ban Phe Pier and the Bangkok bus that left not long after.  But before getting on the bus, we bought some treats for friends and a mobile of assorted sea shells that now hangs above our bedroom door to remind us of an unrepeatable time in Paradise. I hope to see it in my California dreams.


Snap said...

Dr Will, I've been following your blog for quite some time now, but have not left any comments. I've enjoyed your unofficial reviews of various places you and Nan have visited and wish you well on your journey back to the States.

I hope you sort out your 'issues' quickly and that your return to BKK comes sooner than expected.


Janet Brown said...

Will, this essay made me cry. You will come back--you have a wife to cherish! Take care of business and then get your ass back on a plane!!

Unknown said...

Continue to be impressed and delighted with what you share on your blog. Blessings on this coming (possibly unpredictable) trip and come back soon and safe. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help you and Nan.

peace, compassion,

Anonymous said...


Take care of Business {TCB} and get yourself back on a plane when things are ironed out.

You have lots to look forward to !

Peace and Grace. Prayers for a speedy outcome.

Sam Deedes said...

"Out of all the distance and people in the world, we have somehow ended up on the same shore."

You know, you really struck a chord with this one. When I first met my wife Paradee I remember writing that I felt like a small boat tossed on a stormy sea but that now she was in sight beckoning me to shore.