Monday, January 22, 2007

Hung Over in Paradise

Even though Jerry is in Pattaya with Baron, enjoying a suite at the Hard Rock Hotel and all the charms of that seaside city, I thought last night I could keep up pace of my friend's beer drinking. Wrong. Jerry's a pro and I'm just a neophyte. This morning I've been trying to crawl back to normalcy with a head the size of all outdoors. Now, at almost noon, the aspirin substitute I bought at the Bangkok airport is starting to take effect.

The picture above was taken from the beach a short walk from my bungalow on stilts at the Orchid Suites Hotel. I'm staying at Hat Lamai on the eastern shore of Ko Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. I booked the room in Bangkok to make sure I had something when I arrived yesterday, but it's the equivalent of $50 a night, way too expensive for a two-week stay. Taking the advice of my friend Sheila's son Joe, I hiked down the beach to White Sands, a classic backpacker's hideout. Their crumbling bungalows just off the beach are $4 a night which includes a mattress and a mosquito net. The toilet/shower is a hike through the compound. I paid for the weekend, my second set of rooms. But overnight I had second thoughts. A man my age and stature in the world needs a certain degree of comfort. I'm not a backpacker. So this morning I went to the nearby Amadeus, recommended by Lonely Planet, and was (easily) talked into booking a 1000-baht ($28) room in a new wing, with 10% off for a week's stay. It has a bathroom, TV, and a lovely view of the bay from a balcony. I can be comfortable there and read my books in relative peace (the bars are not far down the street). There might not be a pool, but the beach is a short walk down a dirt path.

So, here I am in paradise. It's not quite what I pictured. At the Ko Samui airport I thought I'd landed on the big island of Hawaii. Same feel, same palm trees, but the statue of Qwan Yin was a nice addition. I quickly got a mini-van to Lamai with a dozen others. The two blondes from the plane I thought were Russian joined me and turned out to be Swedish. I learned that the infamous full moon celebration on Ko Pha-Ngan is Feb. 3rd, a couple of days before I leave. I'm probably too old for that scene, I told them, and they were politely complimentary about my youthfulness. After all, I'd made it this far. They had not reserved rooms in advance but were looking for a friend and had the driver drop them off at McDonalds in Lamai. Later that night I saw them with another girl pass by the terrace where I was eating dinner. At least we're not in Chaweng, the most popular beach on Ko Samui. We drove down the main drag there which was lined with every kind of fast food and tacky souvenir shop, along with the usual travel agencies, ATMs and "resorts." I suppose I should have known that paradise just about everywhere is paved over with parking lots, etc. (thank you, Joni Mitchell).

Last night I sat at one of the open-air bars and talked with a coal miner from Australia as we waited for the Thai boxing match featuring women fighters at a ring in the center of a ring of bars. He was in his late thirties, a fourth-generation miner, and he'd been coming to Ko Samui since 1989 when the roads, he said, were all dirt tracks. We talked about the relative demerits of Howard and Bush and the benefits of a socialism that has never been tried, while all around us the bar hostesses shouted to the passing parade, trying to drum up business. I talked with one whose name sounded like "Juan," and she told me that she had come here from her home in Issan a month ago. She was thirty and had a young daughter back home "with mama and papa." She introduced me to a bar game that combined tic-tac-toe with tiddly winks. The object was to get four in a row and she consistently beat me. The only time I won was when she was distracted by another customer.

By the time the crowds had packed into the hundreds of plastic seats around the boxing ring, my eyes were beginning to glaze over from the Chang and Heineken beers I had been drinking. I tried to focus on the two women kicking and smashing each other to the cries of the crowd, but it was mostly a blur. I'd even contributed to the winner's pot. Fighters sponsored by each of the bars were to compete until a champion was chosen. A men's Thai boxing match will be held at the main stadium on Monday night and there is a a gym around the corner from the Orchid Suites where the boxers work out. I might go, sober this time.

The gardens of my resort are filled with various kinds of statuary that is vaguely Buddhist. Below my balcony is an elaborate shrine where this morning I watched the birds eat the food that was put out for the Buddha. If I didn't know Buddha had dropped out of the cycle of death and rebirth I might think that he was reincarnated as one of the black birds with white bands on their wings that are so common in southeast Asia. The pool is not heavily used but I enjoyed a dip late yesterday afternoon following my first foray into the wilds of Lamai Beach. This morning, desperately in need of coffee and something in my stomach, I went early to the breakfast laid out on the terrace for guests, and found a cheese and ham omelet and some pineapple slices to encourage recovery. Last night I had an excellent pad thai at the Bauhaus restaurant and bar (which advertises "foam parties" on Monday and Friday nights -- whatever the hell that is), but the six or more beers that I subsequently drank did not help the digestion.

The Thais have managed to combine a beautiful south sea island beach with all the joys of shopping, not to mention what happens in those hundreds of bars clustered in the central area. Now I have to look at my definition of paradise and see what it really is I'm looking for. Sounds like material for a Jimmy Buffet song.

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