Monday, May 25, 2009

oh ko samet (part one)

There are two stories to my weekend spent in Ko Samet, an island in the Gulf of Thailand about three hours south-east of Bangkok. There is the story where I went to paradise, swam in the warmest, bluest waters I've ever swam in, sat on the whitest beaches, drank icy cold Singha beer at a bar so close to the water that my feet were in the sand (see above picture for proof of paradise like nature of said island). And then there is the story of how I went night swimming with my travel buddies and had all of my personal belongings stolen-camera, cell phone, wallet, passport, shoes, medicine, keys, all of it. Although to stop and think of it, there are many more stories than just those. It wouldn't be fair to sum up my weekend with either of them alone. So I will do my best to tell the whole story, the one containing all of the many threads and moments in a weekend that good or bad, could never be called forgettable.

As soon as my last class was done on Friday I was off. As I've written, I'm getting to like my teaching job. Within just one week I've gotten better, more patient. But by the time Friday rolled around I was ready to be off. I'm one of a handful of CIEE participants who are not at a school with another participant. And while this allows me to get to know my Thai teachers and be independent and all that, during the weekend I want to be with my other American teachers. I want to speak English rapidly, not having to pause between each word and repeat myself (I don't mean this to disparage the Thai people I know whose English is lightyears better than my Thai could ever be, it's just that no matter how well someone speaks a second language, unless they are incredibly fluent and have lived in an English speakin country for years, it will never be quite the same as talking to someone who is a native speaker of your own language). So I grabbed my backpack, took off my seersucker knee length skirt and button down navy top (my best teacher attire) and threw on a floaty yellow top and shorts (my best beach attire), and took a bus to meet my friends who live half an hour from me. Together we travled to the Ekami bus station in the east of Bangkok, got there in the middle of a downpour of course, and ran through the rain to catch our bus to Ban Phe (the port that is the jump off point for Ko Samet). It was my first substantial bus ride in Thailand (not counting the orientation bus which was private and just for our group) and I was pleasantly surprised. We were given water and snacks and even blankets. And if I understood Thai there would have been a movie to watch too (although even without understanding Thai, the Thai movies I've seen here seem to all start of funny and slap-sticky and then bizarrely end with people getting riddled with bullets-so a little confusing).

We arrived in Ban Phe around 9pm and within seconds of getting off the bus had already arranged to share a speedboat to the island with another foreigner (an Australian girl), who had been on the same bus. There are ferries that go to Ko Samet during the day but they stop running at 5pm. So your only option to get to the island is to charter a speedboat from one of the many private companies all over the port city. The ferry is only about 1.50 US dollars per person. But after taking the ferry the way back I can say that despite the price increase (the speedboats cost about 1,000 Baht to charter, around 30 US dollars, but if you have at least four people it's only ten dollars per person), I much prefer taking the speedboat. We clamored aboard with all of our stuff and sat down. Minutes later we were zooming across the inky darkness toward Ko Samet. For the first five to ten minutes, we were in near blackness, except for the distant pinpricks of light from the mainland on one side and the distant pinpricks of light from the island. The driver quickly increased the boat's speed and we were flying. I gripped onto my purse (oh the foreshadowing) and backpack for dear life and held on tight to the seat underneath me, as the boat nearly went airborned with every wave we passed. The sound of the engine and the wind combined into one enormous roar that blocked out all other noise. For the first time since I've been in Thailand I was outside and not sweating or sticky or hot. There was wind in my face, my hair was going nuts, and I couldn't stop smiling. Here we were, hurtling through space, pewter gray water on all sides, jet black night sky above, and growing closer and closer the outlines of Ko Samet, black, rolling hills against the night sky. Half way there the driver had to stop to refill the gas tank, and the second we stopped it was like a switch was flipped off. Where moments before it was too noisy to hear my own voice, the second the engine cut off there was the most unbroken silence. Everything grew still. It was one of the few occasions where the phrase "you could hear a pin drop" is applicable. We bobbed silently on the water while the driver poured in the gas, and I took in the whole island in front of us, mountainous and hilly in the middle, tapering off to flat outrcrops of land on the edges. And then we were off again, flying over the water, occasionally passing other speedboats, all the while the island growing larger, the lights growing brighter.

We curved around the outer edge of the island and the scene changed abruptly. Where before there were only scattered lights and darkness, now the beach in front of us was alive with color and light. A row of beach front bars and restaurants sat back a few yards from the shore, there neon signs visible as we grew closer. We could hear music and as my eyes adjusted I could make out firedancers on the shore. I looked for a dock of some kind but there wasn't one in sight. We headed straight for the beach, the jungly, moutainous island rising steeply behind it. And then when we were almost on top of the shore, the driver cut off the engine again, and motioned for us to hop down. And hop down we did, straight into the shallow ocean waters which even at night were unbelievably warm. It is a strange but awesome feeling to arrive on an island in this fashion. As we trode out of the water right up the beach toward the bars and hotels, backpacks and all, I sort of felt part cast away, part James Bond. It's quite a way to make an entrance, I can tell you that. The nice part about the speedboats is they take you directly to the part of the beach where your hotel is, so we only had to walk across the road to get to Naga Bungalows.

The bungalows were interesting, very basic, very rustic, very hippie, backpacker-y, beachy. They were cheap as dirt (12 dollars per person for both nights) and they took care of what we needed. However, even though I'm only 23 it's getting harder and harder for me to stay in "rustic" places. I think my days of hostels are rapidly growing to a close. I like AC. I like private bathrooms with hot water. There's something that comforts me about having a minibar in the room, even though I never use these. Yet I like knowing it's there, same with cable television. I'm spoiled okay, and if it means shelling out some extra money I'll do it. But we barely spent any time in the bungalows so they worked for what we needed and were right next to the beach. But next time I might splurge on somewhere where you don't have to sleep under a mosquito net.

After throwing on dresses the five of us set off toward the beach. Now the game plan was for a mellow night, back home early so we could be well rested for the next day. That was the game plan, and it went well for a while. We found a bar right on the beach, and we sat at a table with our feet in the sand and drank pina coladas and watched the firedancers (who are incredible by the way, I have no idea how they dont burn their faces off, there's so much twirling and throwing and jumping going on with these huge flames, but obviously they know what they're doing). The water spread out in front of us, the color of a nickel underneath the black sky and moon. The waves were soft but there was still a rustle everytime one crashed, more of a soft lapping than breaking. It was the perfect quiet evening. That is until the dancing started. With the dancing came a few, ahem, more drinks, and then came more dancing, and it's sort of a vicious cycle. The bar was crawling with backpackers and we got into conversations with them and with the Thai bartenders and even the firedancers. It wasn't an early, mellow night, but we were having an awesome time. At around 3am (this might make me sound geriatric but it's been a very long time since I stayed out that late) we gathered our things and set off for the hotel, only a little ways down the beach. On the way back someone (can't exactly remember who but knowing my penchant for this I wouldn't be surprised if it was me) suggested a quick swim. The water had been so warm when we got off the speedboat and it was so calm and shallow, what could be the harm in a quick dip before bed. We set our stuff on rocks on the beach and waded in, careful to keep an eye on our things. And the water was as amazing as I thought it would be. Even in the dark you could just feel how clear it was, how the next morning it would be blindingly blue. It was soft in that weird way water can be soft, absolutely one of the best feelings in the world, the air the perfect temperature so that even in wet clothes it wasn't cold. After about ten minutes, someone walked up on the beach and started talking to us. Just a couple of harmless questions, where are you from, etc. and etc. We thought nothing of it and he moved along down the beach after a couple of minutes.

After just a little more swimming (wherein me and my friend Choua collided with an underwater rock and got some nasty scrapes, hers way worse than mine, she seriously looks like she's been attacked by a bob-cat), we walked out of the water to get our things. It was really dark so we thought nothing of it at first when we couldn't immediately find them. The beach where we were was really rocky so it wasn't easy to find the exact rock we had left our stuff on. But after a few minutes of searching, a panicked feeling started to bubble up in my chest. Our things had to be there, they just had to be, but why couldn't we find them? There was no current. We hadn't come out of the water at a different point than we went in. And our stuff was left just feet from the water. Finally I saw a bag in silhouette a few yards away. I went to it and thought it was my gray, cloth bag. When I picked it up I knew right away it wasn't. It was one of my friends. Instead of giving us more hope that we would find the two remaning bags (mine and my friend Lauren's), this sort of dealt the final blow. Our bags had all been very close to each other. If this bag was here, then the other ones would logically be right by. Except they weren't. They were completely and utterly and hopelessly gone. Which we knew right then. Of course we did. But we did what all people do when they have lost very important things. We convinced ourselves we could still find it. We walked up and down the beach, far, far from where we had put our bags down, thinking maybe just maybe they'd turn up. A group of British (or possibly Australian) backpackers we had met in the bar came down to help us. Then the firedancers and the bartenders joined in. It was like some makeshift search party, all of these half dressed people (it was an island after all) walking in circles along the beach, eyes straining in the dark to make out something, anything that could possibly be a purse. When this proved fruitless we went to plan B. Obviously our bags had been taken (almost definitely at the moment the random guy talked to us from the beach, thus distracting us while his cronies ran up behind him and took the bags unseen), but maybe the thiefs had dumped the bags after taking cash and cell phones and cameras. It still was horrible, but if we could at least get our passports back and maybe our credit cards, then it wouldn't be quite as terrible. Hell I would have been estatic to find my shoes (mine were the only pair taken and for whatever reason this just struck me as incredibly cruel, fine take the expensive electronics and cash but do you really need a pair of women's size 7 flip flops?, especially when the owner only brought one pair of shoes that weekend because she was trying to pack light for once in her life). It might have been a half hour or an hour later when we finally gave up. We could come back in the morning, but nothing was turning up that night. And that's when I lost it. I couldn't wrap my head around how I was going to replace everything or even just function without money and a cell phone until I could replace them. Tiny, trivial things like food (once I got back to my town and wasn't with friends) and getting around and just these inconsequntial details you never think about, suddenly became magnified. They loomed monstrously over my head. My apartment keys were in my bag, and my apartment office was closed on Sundays so I couldn't get back to my town till Monday, but how was I going to let my school and coordinator know without a cell phone. The list of things I had to do and the complexities of doing them were just too much. And it was made worse by the fact that this was supposed to be my relaxing, beach weekend. School had been so exhausting and so overwhelming and the weekend was going to be my little paradise get away, so I'd come back refreshed and energized and glowing from the sun (ha, more on that later). And now everything seemed ruined. The items that had been in my purse kept flashing before my eyes, in sharp focus, one after another, on a loop. Boom-nice digital camera that I had gotten for my birthday, boom unlocked international cell phone that wasn't only my phone but my only way to access the internet at my apartment, boom passport which logistically was a nightmare alone but sentimentally was a blow because while I could replace a passport I couldn't replace my stamps and my visas and all the little mementos of my travels thus far. I couldn't stop seeing these things, and each time they flashed before me, they seemed to weigh heavier than before. The shock and confusion and denial were wearing off, and it really really really sucked. There's no mor eloquent way to sum up how it felt. And so I sort of, kind of, just lost it. But that's where this seemingly straightforward horrible story took a turn and become something much more complex and much less just a cautionary tale for stupid backpackers who leave their purses unattended to go night swimming.

And that's where I must leave off for now. I've been in Starbucks at one of Bangkok's fancy malls but must head home before it gets late. I should be able to post again tomorrow from the school. I kind of feel like this is back in the day and I'm writing one of those serialized stories where every chapter ends with someone hanging off a cliff or about to be run over by a train or mauled by a tiger, but maybe the suspence angle will be good for this blog, spice things up a little. So for now I'll leave you with another image of Ko Samet (from google images, obviously not my own because if you've been paying attention my 350 dollar camera is probably being sold for 200 Baht on some street stall right now), which will hopefully clue you in to the fact that despite the shiteous events detailed above, the story of my weekend can't be all bad, because, well, I really was in paradise.


Anonymous said...

I am really enjoying this blog. You make everything come alive.

liz ramsay said...

thanks! that means a lot, it's really great to get feedback (of all kinds) but the nice feedback is even better :)

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