Thailand Part 1 – The Arrival

There are, as you are fully aware, many travel books. There are books, which clinically describe a location, its activities and weather, its people and customs. There are books in which the author makes many intensely personal remarks as to how he or she felt during their time away, and there are books which are designed wholly for tourists, listing hotels, restaurants, campsites, etc... and their prices. This will not be any of the above... until I entirely forget this introduction, my original purpose, and large parts of the trip and it devolves into exactly one or more of the above. Well, now that's out of the way let's have at it...

I don't go on holiday particularly often, I should, I could, but I don't, and rather than turn this article into a self-analysis let's just leave it at that. The reason I mention such a pathetic thing is to emphasize how carefully I choose a location when I actually do manage to drag myself away. For various reasons I decided upon Thailand, and for more reasons (predominately the weather in May and for activities), I came upon a place called Railay Beach, which, which terms an 'island' is actually a remote part of Southern Thailand only accessible by boat.

The day arrived and as my paranoia and anxiety grew I regretted my decision more and more, but fortunately I had maneuvered myself into such a corner as to find the trip inescapable, and thus, at six in the morning, I found myself in the back of a rather nice four-by-four being chauffeured to the airport.

This time I was leaving from a place in China called Zhengzhou, which while technically in the capital city in the province of Henan, possesses a very nice, simple and friendly airport. I have flown from there three times now, and as an experienced visitor to, and general despiser of, airports, I must say this is one of my least hated (this is truly saying quite a lot – any experienced traveller will undoubtedly understand).

Airports are generally foul places, filled with the stench of greed, power and impotence... Let's spend a little time thinking about airports and airlines. The airline advises you to arrive three hours early, but the airport doesn't supply sufficient seating for all the people waiting for their plane to begin to check in. Why did the airline ask you to arrive three hours early... because they are only going to pay the airport for two check-in desks for economy flights (obviously by far the largest market), so the three hundred plus people they are going to crush into a space only a little larger than two buses stuck together have to go through weighing their luggage, obtaining their tickets, making particular arrangements, or solving problems, helped by just two people, who are unfortunately limited to one or two languages. One then has to pass through poorly organised, poorly staffed, and often old and badly decorated rooms in a series of extended queues... only to discover the moment one passes from the unfriendly eye of your local immigration officer, after waiting for thirty minutes in a room sorely lacking in air-conditioning, one emerges into an opulent land of designer labels, expensive whiskeys and enough perfume to fumigate the Augean stables.

Have you ever noticed the friendliest 'officials' at an airport are [predominately] the ones at the security check? The worst by far are the immigration officials, perhaps understandably, due to having to sit alone in a little box all day checking the same documents over and over, possessive of apparent power, but in reality as impotent as the rest of us... but the security people have a little more variety; knives and lighters, beeping machines and gossip, and the whole idea of making people take off their shoes and belts must have some kind of psychological comedic element... or is that just me?

One thing you can say about China (on a political level rather than an individual one, and only for the most part...), they are efficient organizers. In this way (although in England we take this to a far more personal level), they are very like the English. When you go to a place like Thailand, or France as another good example, you really see the difference... the chaos, but it's a kind of relaxed chaos, as if they're perfectly happy the way things are – did Britain impose order upon the world, in much the same way the Romans did, simply because we can't stand the mess...?

When I arrived in Thailand I was with a Chinese friend who didn't have a visa (theirs had expired... who possibly leaves a country without checking their visa: someone who doesn't live by the visa day by day), my friend queued up in an emergency line for less than three minutes, paid about forty pounds and walked through a private immigration line after waiting behind just two souls. I, who have an English passport and thus don't even NEED a visa for a month, had to queue in undirected lines, in a hot room, amidst hundreds of people, thus nearly causing me to miss my next flight... the world is indeed a strange and unbalanced place.

Setting a scene: dashing up to the check-in counter because I've been queuing for more than an hour at immigration, sweaty from hundreds of impatient people crammed into a [comparatively] tiny room. Still thirty minutes before my flight leaves so I think I'm ok... the girl nonchalantly looks at her watch and tells me the desk is closed and I shall have to wait until tomorrow before the next flight leaves...

Now, I understand Marx and alienation from a product or a service... I was in England a couple of years ago and I went to the cinema. Avoiding going into too many different prices I just want to talk about the coke. A friend asked for a large coke, now this stuff isn't real coke; I was a barman all through university and I know what it is – it's kind of a really thick syrup that comes in an airtight bag, which is attached to a pipe. When you 'pour' the stuff carbonated water is added to dilute it. It is super cheap, costing, at least a few years ago (and presumably these cinema chains can buy huge quantities to get the price further reduced), about five pence a glass. My friend asked for one of these and the guy poured her one and asked for nine pounds fifty pence...! She was concerned about the chap not letting her in with her own food, but I pointed out it was unlikely he cared enough to bother.

Equation: 5p drink = £10, minimum wage £5:50 per hour... (that's not including the ticket for the film) = guy doesn't give a shit...!

It's pretty unlikely the countless masses have read a huge amount of Marx, or contemplated the irregularities surrounding their existence, but somewhere inside a bubbling, or roaring, resentment resides, an understanding of the scales being weighted a little too much to the right, and while assiduous assistants may well abound (those working so dreadfully hard towards that shift supervisor promotion), the vast majority wouldn't feel bad, and it might even brighten up the rebellious day, to watch someone get one over on their boss.

I digress... as I so very often do... I stare at the uncaring check-in attendant, then at the clock above her head, then back at her, and I feel the bile begin to rise and the lava begin to bubble. She possibly notices this, maybe not, but either way does the oldest trick in a book full of ancient tricks – she passes me on to her supervisor. However, how does she do this? She waves her hand in a general direction and turns to begin a conversation with her workmate. The nearest person she has flickered her fingertips is a mother holding a two-year-old child. I ask “the mother or the child?” This stumps her for a moment, and the she tells me “desk 21”, which, admittedly is in the direction she indicated, but more than thirty metres away behind a check-in machine, a sign advertising the efficiency and friendliness of this airline, and about ten or twelve milling, shifting people.

Fortunately, either the supervisor was naturally better inclined, he'd recently had a spot of good news, the angry aggression surging through my veins, or a combination of some or all of the above, because he set to immediately finding tickets and letting the plane know I was coming. Oh, how I wanted a cigarette...! Anyone who has read some of my work before will know smoking is one of my favourite topics... the Satan worship now attached to smoking in the West is a little atrocious – I don't want to repeat myself too much, but I did notice a new detail to the contagion: they have now begun to put smoking areas in airports (if they even have one), at the furthest most reaches of the terminals; what is the point of that? First, I would suppose it is to keep the lepers out of sight, secondly, I would suppose it to be further negative encouragement not to smoke.

I didn't stop for a cigarette, I just hurried along to the plane, sat in my seat, and waited another ten minutes until more passengers arrived...!

The flight from Bangkok to Krabi is relatively short, just an hour and a bit. On the way they very kindly supplied us with a plastic sandwich. How did I know it was plastic? I knew because not only was the bread a crunchy kind of filling (pun intended), but for some remarkable reason it was actually blue (how and perhaps more fascinations why do you make bread blue) – not an important aside, but interesting in brief.

There's only one other thing I would like to note about the flights (until much later in this tale), and that's the difference between Thai Air and Smiley (also a Thai airline). Thai Air have televisions... but they cramp nine people to a row, and if you are anything taller than three foot two you will not enjoy the flight (unless you really like the movie). Smiley don't have televisions, and you could easily mistake their planes for older models for this and a few other reasons like lighting, air-conditioning, etc... but they, and I'm speculating here, possibly sacrifice the extra costs for all the 'newfangled' gadgets for a little extra leg space and smaller planes with only six abreast to a row. On the whole, while I do enjoy the simplicity of numbing myself with modern sensationalism, being nearly 6'2” I'd much rather be forced into reading a book and have the extra leg room (there's a whole essay in their but I can't afford, within the context of airport, the luxury of such a digression).

Moving on – arriving at Krabi airport was wonderful... as I had already passed through international immigration we simply walked out of the tiny, single terminal airport (for a long time now I have learnt how to pack light; two carry on backpacks, a medium sized one for my clothes and a day bag for everything else. The benefits of this are numerous, but my very favourite is not having to wait for my luggage to emerge from the plane – especially since that time when I went to Dalian and my luggage went to Paris...). The airport reminded me of a tiny place in the Philippines which had a sign politely requesting all passengers to leave their firearms at the desk before boarding… Krabi was the beginning of the laid back part of the holiday. You mooched outside and were accosted by people wanting to drive you somewhere, the bus and taxi companies fought for your custom, you could smoke in front of the airport and nobody cared even a little you might be tainting their souls with some devilish aroma, consigning them to an eternity of tourment.

I chose the bus as it was cheaper and I wasn’t in any particular hurry (and through experience of many different countries and states taxi drivers are notoriously untrustworthy – one day I shall get), around to writing the tale of a taxi ride in Ermeishan), and fifteen minutes later I was settled comfortably into a minibus and happily heading towards my unknown holiday destination...

There's little of note to remark on about this journey except something about the relaxed and communal attitude to these smaller rural areas. After about five minutes the bus stopped and we picked up a woman and two kids. At first I thought it was a regular bus and we would be stopping at several locations on the way where passengers would jump on and off the bus, but after a few moments I realised it was the driver's wife, with his two children (this became even more apparent when he turned of the dreadful music playing throughout the bus and put on a tape of English nursery rhymes and children's songs – significant lift in quality and lyrics from the previous selection...). I thought he was giving them a lift somewhere, but eventually it became apparent they were simply hanging out, riding around as a family for some company and something to do (I must admit I by far prefer the country life, the life of small villages and communities, rather than the sterile, hypochondriacal environments of large towns and cities).

I have to get drivers and taxis a lot... not only does my work demand a great deal of transport, I travel a lot, and I have no car (a happy decision considering the quality of most of the drivers in the countries I live in and visit), and one of the things you can tell about a professional driver, and perhaps through them the local and even national psychology, is whether or not they play music in the car (also what kind of music, and how loud they play it). I think most people will agree that a professional driver should not put on music in the car unless the paying passenger actually requests it...? Reasonable arguments can be made for the driver choosing what happens in his or her car, and my English sensibilities might be clouding my judgment (as they are so often happily do), but at the end you are paying for the services of the car and the radio or CD player are a part of the car (aside from the common courtesy – English sensibilities again, as what is common courtesy to us is often all but unfathomable to others). So when you get into a car and the music is a) some crappy dance music exemplifying the all but talentless nature of the current generation, b) turned up so loud you can't involve in a conversation with the person sitting next to you (I mean really... they don't even provide flashing lights and alcoholic beverages), and c) upon occasion – if they believe they have a nice voice – will actually start to sing along with it, it's certainly going to tell you a little about the driver, a little about the local environment, and, after a little more experimentation, quite a lot about society in general (exempting, of course, taxi drivers in busy cities who have the local traffic radio on very quietly, which seems like a highly intelligent use of the radio)...

I want to post this and begin on the main holiday piece so I shall quickly pass over the very strange mixture of rich and poor: as we drove through poor towns, villages and the occasional lonesome house dotted through the countryside (the towns were fairly standard Asian communities: mostly based on either side of the main road, shops almost entirely shuttered, functional places, often combining living quarters with shop space, selling almost entirely necessities for life rather than expensive luxury items), I noticed for every few normal, poor living space (mostly bungalows), there would be a finished, or under construction, expensive looking villa type; why design and built a luxury villa in such a rural area peculate…. Also, almost every house looked different from the next, telling you something about the building and community structure of the place... In England when we build a new estate there might be three or four different house types, repeated at different angles to give them the appearance of being a different type of property. In China they will build a community of housing blocks, all identical to the next, and often a dozen or more floors tall. The community will distinguish itself from the next only by the floral decorations between the blocks. In this part of Thailand the buildings were, as far as I could see, all different in design and specific location, suggesting [to me] they were built privately, and at different times, and designed by the original owner (as far as resources could stretch), again suggesting something about the influence and power exerted by the government, and the general practicality and efficiency of the country (perhaps a little research into Thai politics...).

Eventually we reached a place called Ao Nang Pier, a small fairly unpleasant looking tourist destination built into a local town, where we bought tickets for a boat ride across to what was named Railey Island, but which is actually a small peninsular jutting from the mainland, but almost impossible to reach by land due to small mountains and thick jungle. I was told to wait on the quay until there were ten or more passengers and then one of the boatmen would shake himself from his sloth and motor us out to our intended location.

I sat by the beach waiting for more people to turn up (a tedious activity, or lack of activity as any), and the longer I waited the more I noted the boats didn't actually seem to reach the beach. Rather, they sat between thirty and fifty metres out in the water and as a boat came in passengers would disembark and have to wade to the quay.

As a rule, I generally avoid shorts anyway, and while travelling I like to feel secure so I had long trousers and new trainers... After a little thought I ducked into the men's toilets and popped on a pair of shorts and lost the socks, putting all my valuables into the pockets of my bags, and this turned out to be a very sensible choice... The wade to the boat, a small, wooden, loon-handled propeller thing was invigorating. The sea was as warm as the air, an incredibly comfortable temperature. The lapping waves didn't quite threaten to tip one into the water, but combined with balancing bags on your head they did manage a kind of humorous menace. The poor couple who had ignored the signs were bewailing their sodden trousers (the boat we were unfortunate enough to be designated was further out than the others forcing us to wade almost up to our waist), the sea ahead seemed flat as ice from any particular distance, its perfection only [debatably] marred by a small mountain like island jutting from the waters, and the sky jealously struggled to imitate the sea as the light began to fade and its blue began to gray.

I sat in the prow, standing occasionally to feel the lift and fall of the boat as it roared through the waves, and marvelled at the fascinating rock formations; brown, grey and white stone strewn with oddly angled sparse vegetation, appearing to have solidified in the very process of flowing and dripping down its own almost vertical slopes.

Debarking was much the same as embarking (after a brief scare where we dropped off the sodden couple at a very miserable and cheap looking cove), but this time onto a long beautiful white/yellow beach. Twenty or so metres from the crescent sands were lovely restaurants looking out onto the sea, and behind them were several splendid looking hotels... things were definitely looking up...

The hotel was only fifty metres or so from where we landed, checking in was effortless, and a driver took me to my room on a little electric buggy. The room itself was excellent; every room was an individual chalet with a small porch and bench, huge soft bed, huge bath with built in pillow (Heaven!). Everything was clean, everything looked new, and I was settled just in time to wander out to the beach and watch the sun set into an all but motionless sea.

I finished the evening with a little fish and chips (I know, I know, a little stereotyped, but I would get to the local delicacies when I wasn't so bloody tired), and a live performance by local girls, wearing what I supposed must be a cultural dress, dancing to some traditional music.

I had arrived...

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