Monday, January 11, 2010

Out With the Old, In With the New

Our 2009 ended by the pool at Bill Resort on the island of Ko Samui where New Year celebrations included a sumptuous buffet of Thai delicacies, traditional dancing and drumming by local groups, a cabaret performance by katoeys from a club in Lamai Beach, and a show by monkeys trained to climb palms and pick coconuts. It was followed by a spectacular fireworks display up and down the beach as hundreds of sky lanterns drifted over the island under the full moon.

I wasn't too happy about the monkey siting on my shoulder after the show for a photo op, but the fat ladyboy who lip synced to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" was terrific, and the grilled seafood was delicious. Tickets for the pricey party were included in our six-day stay and we were seated next to a Dane with his Norwegian girlfriend who had obviously gotten a head start on festivities. Most of the guests seemed to be from northern European countries which were experiencing their coldest winter in thirty years. Georgio's Bao Bab Restaurant, my hangout on Lamai Beach when I visited Samui three years ago, was filled with Italians who clearly loved their pasta, and on one of our excursions I talked with a couple from Vladivostok (Russians are now everywhere, judging and by the signs and menus in their language).

I was surprised to find so many children at Bill Resort (seeing my old name stenciled everywhere felt a bit odd), and even a few babes in arms. In the first hours of 2010 (2553 here in Thailand) they were on the beach helping their parents to send aloft the candle-fueled sky lanterns (called khom loi in Thai) and waving sparklers while the thunder of fireworks resonated far out to sea. The tables for the outdoor food stalls in the center of Lamai were filled with families, right next to the brightly lit bars with their bikini-clad pole dancers. Although the sand and the sea are spectacular, the little village of Lamai is quite tawdry, catering to every tacky tourist taste. It was about a 15 minute walk from our resort, which was nestled within a hillside jungle, and we went to visit several times to purchase necessities and vary our diet. The whole fish with lemon sauce at Black Diamond was aroi maak (to die for). We bought tee shirts that promoted Ko Samui and new sandals for Nan and sampled ice cream at several shops (one serving Buds "from San Francisco"). The alternative to walking was to take a taxi for the short drive home, but the rates were outrageous; a 35 baht ride in Bangkok would cost 350 baht from Lamai Beach. Even the songthiews charged two to four times the rates we're used to. It was a seller's market.

Nan brought three bathing suits, two bikinis and another one a bit more demure. She was shy partly because Thais are a rarity among the beach tourists and locals who keep to themselves swim in their clothes. The surf at Lamai is a bit rough normally so we spent most of our sun time by the pool. On the second day, well-lathered with sun screen, we walked a short distance down the beach to a large collection of rocks to see Hin Ta and Hin Yai (grandfather and grandmother), geological formations that resemble a penis and a vagina and which are hugely popular with Thai tourists. There were dozens of visitors scrambling over the rocks to get a good view and a photo of the sexy curiosities. Nan found herself to be the only woman in a bikini and was sorely embarrassed, covering herself as best she could with my shoulder bag. After that the bikinis were put away.

This was my second trip to the island and Nan's first. Last time I visited the nearby Ko Pha-Ngan, host of the famed full moon parties, and this time I wanted to see the Ang Thong National Marine Park, fictional location of "The Beach" (which was filmed near Phuket), and Ko Tao. I signed up for two day trips. The first promised kayaking and snorkling in Ang Thong, a beautiful archipelago of 42 small islands with limestone cliffs and hidden lagoons. Our guide on the overcrowded boat was chatty enough to be on yaba (the Thai amphetamine). We stopped on Ko Wua Talap at the park headquarters while the crew unloaded kayaks. Nan and I were joined by a Japanese man who did not understand English or rowing instructions. By the time we set out, the sky had darkened and winds had made the sea choppy. Within five minutes my back was killing me and the Japanese man was taking us straight into a cliff. Rain made it an unforgettable experience. Back on the boat we ate fried chicken for lunch and watched the other kayakers struggle in. Somehow the time for snorkling disappeared. But we did visit Ko Mae Ko and climbed through a limestone passage to view the lovely landlocked turquoise lagoon. From the top of the island we could see in all directions this pristine islands park that survives despite the daily influx of packed tourist boats. Leo was nowhere to be found, having left the beach.

The next day we set out in a speedboat from Bo Phut pier to the nearby island of Ko Tao, the diver's paradise. This highly organized tour made the previous day's excursion seem amateurish. Our boat sped past Ko Ph-Ngan which is much bigger than the southern spit of land where the monthly parties are held. Our first destination was Mango Bay where we donned mask and goggles to oggle brightly colored fish among the shoreline rocks. It was delightful! The last time I snorkled was at Hanauma Bay on Oahu over twenty years ago. A number of boats docked in the bay, some with divers in full gear, so we got to watch them watching fish on the sea floor below. I think we saw just as much and didn't have to bother with heavy oxygen tanks. After a couple of hours in the water, we sped around the island to Hat Sai Ri, the main town on Ko Tao, and were served a tasty set lunch in a sea view restaurant. Afterward, we explored. Even though the island attracts mainly divers (training and certifying more of them than anywhere in the world), it's a lovely place for anyone and we resolved to return for a longer stay.

The afternoon's treat was Ko Nang Yuan, several atolls linked by a sandbar and close by Ko Tao. Indescribably beautiful (that's why I take photos), we found dozens of boats unloading hundreds of day trippers. A steady stream of them rounded the first atoll on a wooden walkway to cross an inlet on a shaky pontoon bridge before reaching the prime snorkling lagoon. More divers with tanks and wetsuits were receiving instruction as we paddled around the rocks looking for fish. On the other side of the lagoon, even more swimmers disembarked from another half-dozen ferries. The tiny island features accommodations and an outdoor restaurant with exhorbitant prices. After our swim and snorkle, we lay on the sand for a short while and listened to the melange of foreign languages spoken by the sun bathers. It seemed as if it was rare to hear English. I had rubbed my toe on a jagged piece of coral and it was beginning to throb. But before our speedboat left, we wanted to climb the island's highest peak to get the view you see in the photo above. It was steep and arduous, and the last few meters required scrambling up and over big rocks with no steps. As below, it was also crowded above, and we had to wait for others to leave before we could take in the scene. From such a height, the overcrowding seemed unimportant. We didn't notice the dark clouds forming on the horizon. By the time our boat got underway, it had begun to rain and there were whitecaps on the sea. It was a white-knuckle ride, interminable and terrifying, but, amazingly, no one threw up. Nan vowed never to ride in a boat again.

On our final day, we hired a car and driver and took a sightseeing trip around Samui, stopping to see the tall Laem Sor Chedi on the southern coast, Nam Muang Waterfall inland where Thai boys swam under the falls whose waters had been reduced by a long dry spell. We attempted to reach the top of Khao Yai, highest peak on the mountain, but the road was no longer passable. So we went to Nathon, the island's largest city which is mainly a transit point for tourists who take the ferries from Surat Thani on the mainland. We walked along the small harbor where the fishing boats were at rest and visited a market where the day's catch of shrimp, calamari and various kinds of fish was being sold. After a hot cappuccino and a cold drink for Nan, we drove to the north coast where Ko Pha-Ngan is clearly visible across the waters, and stopped at Fisherman's Village in Bo Phut. There old shophouses have been turned into charming restaurants and stores. After a shrimp cocktail and fruit drinks at an Italian restaurant on the bay, we visited the spectacular Wat Plai Laem with its 18-handed Buddha, numerous temple buildings, lagoon, and assorted statues and art, a veritable Buddhist Disneyland. Close by this temple is the Big Buddha at Wat Phra Yai on an artificial island just off the coast. We climbed up the steep stairs and rang the temple bells. Planes to Samui fly right over Big Buddha and it was only a short drive to the airport which has been completed renovated since my last visit. Large and elegant, it is now clearly a world-class international airport, although I believe it is still only serviced by one airline, Bangkok Airways.

I made no New Year's resolutions and felt neither happy nor sad at seeing 2009 fade into history. Its final month will always stay in my mind because of the death of my son Luke. Friends continue to send me condolences, and remark how difficult it must be to lose a child. The loss is still too close to analyze; his memory comes to mind in the midst of both fun and fear. I learned a bit more about my body's limitations as the aging process takes hold. No more kayaking, and no more climbing over rocks (but snorkling is just fine). Unlike Nan, I think I'll still be willing to get on a boat, but not in stormy seas. After six days of holiday, life returned with a bang. We arrived home late Tuesday night and the next morning I had 30 homework papers to read before my two English classes with the monks that afternoon. In addition, I was asked to take Dr. Sman's Saturday classes for the next month and teach his graduate students in education administration how to talk about the Five Precepts of Buddhism in English. Since most are monks and know the precepts quite well (although in Pali), it will be a challenge, and I struggled to quickly prepare a PowerPoint lecture which I think went over well.

Nan's birthday is tomorrow and to celebrate it she has wanted to offer donations to homeless children. She learned from a friend about Ban Kru Noi, just such a place for underprivileged children in the Ratburana area of south Bangkok. Yesterday we bought a taxi trunk load of stuff (soap, toothpast and brushes, shampoo, milk and chips) at Tesco Lotus and arrived not long before lunch. Kru Noi is a woman who started helping children in her home after she suffered a stroke in 1980. Since then she has assisted over 800, some poor who remain with their parents, and some homeless orphans who now live with her or in the neighborhood. When we arrived with our load of gifts, it was chaos in the small yard with a large number of Sunday visitors, and children of all ages running and screaming. Since Ban Kru Noi has received considerable publicity, the children are used to attention and seemed rather blasé when approached. They dipped their heads and held their hands in a wai after receiving Nan's gifts. Kru Noi, presided over her menagerie with a lovely toothless smile. It was a grand beginning to Nan's birthday celebration, which concludes with a dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River Tuesday evening.

1 comment:

Janet Brown said...

Will, this gives me a tiny bit of your happiness as I read it--may 2010 continue to be as joyful for you and Nan as its beginning was.