Sunday, October 12, 2008

Hedonism 101

As the days go by, all of the usual habits and routines fall away, and a kind of numb bliss sets in. Planning the day takes little time and effort: wake, eat, walk, soak in the surf, eat, nap, soak in the surf, eat, watch videos on the laptop, snack, sleep. There is plenty of down time for the memory to do its dance of regret, but, as the ocean breeze said to the fly: beat it! I have no patience for worry or what ifs.

Many if not most recipes for happiness throw in a beach on a desert island. It's been part of my retirement plan for ages. Koh Lanta, however, is not exactly deserted, even if the numbers of visitors are down now at the tail end of the low season. At first I thought the two main beaches, Khlong Dao and Phrae Ae, were underdeveloped. Most of the resorts are out of sight from the inland highway which is dotted with a variety of businesses in various stages of construction and disrepair. There are lots of open spaces. Aside from Saladan, a few blocks of town clustered around the boat docks, there seemed to be no other centers around which residents and tourists might gather. Koh Lanta is one long strip mall.

After I arrived on the boat from Koh Phi Phi Thursday, I rented a Yamaha motorbike and I've been exploring the island. On Friday I traveled down the western coast almost as far south as Mu Koh Lanta National Park (the dirt roads are muddy from recent rain so I stayed on pavement). The half moon beaches are more beautiful as you leave the more populated north, and the occsionally rocky shore, from some vantages points on hills, looks almost like Big Sur. Khlong Nin was especially nice, with guest houses tucked in amongst trees, and I made a note to stay there on my next visit.

On the way back, I stopped at the Green Leaf Cafe at Khlong Khoang for a cappuccino and talked with the owner, a young British woman who came to Thailand three years ago, married a Thai man and stayed. Now they live on Koh Lanta for the season, October through May, and she works in London when the monsoon rains drive everyone away. She told me that 80 per cent of the island's residents are Muslims, something I suspected from seeing the many mosques, as well as women wearing black shawls, and men in white robes with embroidered pillbox hats. The first morning I was awoken at 5 by a call to prayer from a nearby minaret. "But they're mellow," she assured me, meaning not your usual terrorists. I asked her about the birds in cages on her patio, and in front of businesses across the street (the Where Else? guest house). Hers looked like a black cockatile with a hat on its head. I've seen bird cages everywhere in the islands, and she told me it was a fad. They have contests to see which sings the best, she said, and later, driving over the mountain along the spine of the island I saw a huge gathering of men with bird cages, an avian version of Thai Idol I suppose.

Yesterday I traveled down the Eastern side of the island, and though you can't see the sea until you reach Lanta Town, the countryside, with rubber plantations everywhere, tall houses on stilts, even a corn field, was lovely. There was almost no traffic. Ban Koh Lanta, Lanta Town, was the original port and commercial center of the island with ships traveling to Phuket, Penang and Singapore. Some of the buildings are over 100 years old. When I arrived there was a ritual (I suspect Chinese) going on at two altars on the main street that involved people dressed in white, shirtless men with whips, a priestess, a woman in white who looked like a bride, incense, offerings of fruit, and, at the end, very loud fireworks. I think it had something to do with the vegetarian festival that just ended. Afterwards there was a feast that included two Buddhist monks, so it must have been ecumenical. It was too early for lunch, but I went into one of the restaurants on stilts above the water and ordered a lime shake (my refreshment of choice these days) to enjoy the incredible bay view. I suppose when the high season begins next month Lanta Town will be crowded with tourists, but for now I seem to be the only farang. On the way back, I took the cutoff that took me up over the mountain, past Mai Kaeo Cave and a small village where a bustling market was in process, returning to the western highway by Klong Toab, a stretch of white sand dotted with rocks.

Taking a holiday on a Thai island is not all hard work. In addition to fine "American" breakfasts at Lanta Bee Garden, I had a very delicious sirloin steak on the deck at Lanta Tavern one evening. There was some excitement when we heard a collision nearby, "third this week," according to the Aussie owner. This time it was a motorbike and a dog ("There are lots of wild dogs in the neighborhood," he said; "I hope it was the one that has been bothering me.)." Last night I went to one of the seafood restaurants in Saladan and had three tiger prawns. Very tasty, but most of them are head and I was uncertain what could be eaten. Cappuccino, of course, is available everywhere, but I have not yet found a good source for gelatto.

In the mornings I've taken long walks down Hat Khlong Dao, avoiding the south end where the wild dogs run rampant near the Time for Lime guest house and cooking school (the owner takes in strays). Yesterday morning I headed up towards the highway through the bungalows at D.R. Bay Lanta Resort and got lost. Thai residents and workers live appear to live along the inner road, an unlovely shadow behind the more glamorous resorts and spas. Eventually I found my way to the northern bay and finally back to the beach, but it felt a bit like a maze. It's a small island, how can one get lost? The weather has been a bit chancy. Much of yesterday afternoon, after I returned from Lanta Town, it threatened to rain. Twice I canceled my planned seafood dinner before deciding to risk it. After a few sprinkles, the clouds opened and the evening ended with a full-blown sunset.

The man with the pony tail in the front bungalow has a wife and two small kids, and speaks with a kind of Scandinavian accent. Three doors down from me are two women and a man. I chatted with one of the women about the possible danger from jelly fish; her accent was German. The man looked bright red after a day at the beach yesterday and I hope he has some healing ointment. There are sandals outside the nextdoor bungalow so it looks like a neighbor arrived last night. The restaurant here is full of Thais who seem to be family or relatives of the workers. The sea is always in full view. Yesterday I visited Relax Bay Tropicana, a guest house recommended by Lonely Planet. Like many of those I saw on Koh Phi Phi, it was clearly aimed at the backpacker, and tourists who require the illusion of roughing it (bamboo walls, cold showers). I'm no pioneer; give me the basic comforts in my paradise.

But, sometimes, into my revery will come creeping the thought: What am I doing? Is hedonism an end in itself? Is the pursuit of happiness a defendable option? Aristotle thought happiness was the end all and the be all of existence, and quite a few philosophers have agreed with that goal in its various guises. My Buddhist and Christian friends, however, take a dim view of pleasure. On this trip I'm not meditating, I'm not praying, and the only intellectual stimulation I've had in the past couple of days was from a cheesy mystery, Cat & Mouse, by James Patterson. While eating a chicken sandwich at a Swedish delicatessen for lunch, I listened to the call to prayer coming from the Muslim mosque across the highway. There was a time when I would find the reminder to turn within, to get in touch with God, a worthy spiritual nudge. But today I wondered why religions deem it necessary for their adherents to turn away from life in order to perform their duty to God. I think my father was right when he said he found God on the golf course. Any deity worth its salt would affirm life rather than deny it; it would not ask us to look under rocks or inside our bodies to find paradise. Paradise is here, now, if only we have eyes to see.

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