Beaches, Christmas, Mountains, & Snake Shows: Thailand (Pt. 3)
Let’s re-set the scene, shall we? It’s the evening of December 24th, Christmas Eve. Darkness has just settled over Bangkok, and I have just realized that, for the second time in two days, I have no money. This time, the money my mom had wired to me the day before – well, the 7000 baht I had left – has just vanished (stolen, in all likelihood). I’m about to board a bus to take a 12-hour trip to meet my friend Joe near Krabi, a nice beachy area on the western coast of the Thailand’s southern peninsula. I have 80 baht (about $2.50 US) jangling around in my pockets as I climb the stairs onto what would best be described as a luxury bus from the 80s that had been beaten down by time. I have no way to get more money, other than begging Joe (whom I barely know at this time) to help me out once I meet up with him in 12 hours.
The bus ride was long but not altogether unpleasant. After an hour or so, I stopped worrying and poking myself in the eyes and just realized that this was what had happened, and as crappy as it was, there was no way to change it. Things would work out in one way or another – Joe would be kind and able enough to lend me a few bucks for the week, or he wouldn’t be. And if he wasn’t, well, at least I’d already given some thought the day before to what kind of dress I’d look best in.
As moonlit Thai farms and villages raced past me, I leaned my head against the window, closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and vowed to myself that I was done worrying about it and complaining about it. I listened to my ipod (This American Life often has a way of calming me down), I read a little bit. About 5 hours into the trip we stopped at a roadside place that specialized in selling halfway decent food to weary bus travelers at all hours. I bought a water for 40 baht, quickly shaving my meager fortune in half.
Somewhere along the road after that, I fell asleep; and the next thing I remember is waking up to sunlight warming my brow through the window. I checked my ipod – it was 8:09 am local time on December 25th. Merry Christmas, everyone! I felt weird right then, but in a good way – as I’ve said before, I love Christmas and I missed home and family and friends more at the holidays than any other time; here I was, on Christmas morning, in a strange country where I didn’t know any of the language, and I’d just lost all my money. But somehow, when I looked at my ipod, I was happy. I thought of my mom and sister and family at Christmas Eve mass (we’re 14 hours ahead over here, you see), and the Christmas Eve party that would go on back at my mom’s home, and all the goodness of Christmas Day. I missed them and all of that goodness, of course, but more than that, I was just happy for them; and I was happy for me. Because I was on an adventure; I was in freaking Thailand over Christmas! Who cares about the money? Life is what you make it.
Around 9, the bus arrived in Krabi, and I was immediately shuffled into a smaller van that would take me to Ao Nang, the beach town where Joe was presently. We made it to Ao Nang about an hour later, and I started walking around – you see, the directions he’d given me to the hotel were written down in my now-departed notebook – when I heard someone come up behind me and asked, in a high-pitched tone with unsettling bass, if I wanted a massage. I turned around to politely decline, and there was Joe. He’d found me, and thank God.
He asked how the bus trip was, and I said it was ok. And then I told him about the money situation – the ATM card fiasco, the money wire, the theft, the sweat, the panic, the rage, the tears… and then I asked if I could maybe borrow some during this trip and pay him back in Taiwan. He said of course, and that made me happy. Joe and I have since become quite good friends. And I did pay him back.
On Christmas Day, we toured around Ao Nang for a bit. We found a nice little room for 400 baht ($13 US) and headed down to the beach. It was a resort-type place, a big tourist hangout, but it never once felt overcrowded or annoying. Joe got a massage that afternoon, while I just took a nap on the beach. On Christmas day. Pretty great. Let me tell you this – beach naps are the best. If there were a award ceremony for naps, the beach nap would sweep it. You wake up refreshed, the smell of this tropical beach tickling your nose, and if you should desire a swim, well there’s the ocean, good sir. Have at it!
After that we had some dinner, played some cards, and hung out on a tiny side street lined with bars, which is apparently where all the hookers hang out, too. And said hookers are quite aggressive – we were just looking for a place to have a beer and play pool, and we were getting grabbed, groped, and solicited by just about every girl around. It’s a tad unsettling. As someone who enjoys the “thrill of the hunt,” a lot of the fun is lost when the duck casually flies into your blind, shakes your hand, puts the shotgun barrel in his mouth and your hand on the trigger. Now I’m not saying it wasn’t oddly entertaining, but I had no interest in taking these ladies up on their offers. So now you know: Nick’s not a fan of hookers. Write it down.
RAILAY BEACH, A WONDROUS PARADISE
The next morning, Dec. 26th, we packed up our stuff, headed down to the beach, and got on a longboat headed for Railay Beach, where we intended to stay our next few days. Leading up to my trip, I had several people tell me how amazing Railay Beach was – the sand, the water, the limestone cliffs, the atmosphere. Ao Nang had been ok, but we knew there were better beaches to be enjoyed. So we hopped on the longboat and took the 15-minute trip to Railay. Here’s what my research staff (Wikipedia) was able to find on Railay:
Railay Beach (Thai: อ่าวไร่เลย์) is a small peninsula located between the city of Krabi and Ao Nang. Accessible only by boat due to the high limestone cliffs cutting off mainland access. These cliffs attract rock climbers from all over the world, but the area is also popular due to its beautiful beaches and quiet relaxing atmosphere.
On the boat trip, I started chatting up this cute Swedish girl named Elsa – turns out she was here working for six months, at a tour shop, and so she knew all sorts of places we could stay, including cheap ones. Score.
There are two main parts of Railay Beach – East and West – and only a ten-minute walk separates the two. West Railay is where the beautiful beach is, it’s where you can go kayaking, and it’s where the nicest resort is. East Railay is not nearly as pretty, but it’s where the shops and bars and most of the hotels/hostels are. Elsa told us about this place on East Railay that was an Indian restaurant in the front, but had a forest of bungalows in the back, for cheap. We said that sounded good. So she led us there, left to go to work, and Joe and I checked it out.
We walked up a mountain of stairs and stepped onto a flat plain of slate – on either side of us were short tables with pillows all around them (the seating for the Indian restaurant), and in front of us was a tall reception desk. We asked the guy if there were bungalows available, and he said of course. 500 baht a night together – about $8 US apiece.
Our bungalow was resplendent in its simplicity – one 12’x10′ room with two mattresses on the floor and one little wicker bookcase; and behind that, one wide bathroom with a sink, a toilet, and a shower nozzle. And outside, on the front porch, was the prized jewel: a big, lovely, red hammock, with an amazing view either way you sat. I could not have been happier.
We spent the next four days relaxing, swimming, reading, kayaking, playing cards, eating delicious food, and enjoying everything else Railay beach had to offer. The beach itself was amazing – off-white sand that was finer than any I’ve ever seen or felt before, and the water was radiant blue and crystal clear. It seemed that no matter how far out you went, you could always see the bottom. Having grown up sloshing in the dark and dirty waters of the Gulf of Mexico, this place left me in awe.
After the jump, witness the glory, as Joe and I conquer a mountain and dance with snakes! (Not really, but there are snakes.). Also, a wondrous gallery of Thai fun! Join us, won’t you?
WE CONQUERED A MOUNTAIN
On our second day in Railay, we decided to hike up a mountain. Well, actually, we decided to hike up to this lagoon we’d read about, and said lagoon happened to be up somewhere in this “mountain” on East Railay. When we got there, we realized this would not be a Monkey Mountain-esque hike: that is to say, there were no stairs up this mountain – this was a real full-body undertaking, the way it should be. If I’m going to be escalating myself up a mountain, I’d prefer to not just trudge up an endless staircase. And so the trip up this mountain was a wonderful one. It was incredibly steep, and slippery in some spots; there were rocks and trees and a couple ropes to grab onto and pull yourself up, and little else. It was excellent.
We never did actually find the lagoon. I discovered later that at some point the path forked, and we had unknowingly gone in the non-lagoon direction, which ended at an amazing lookout spot. But Joe and I, still not realizing we’d reached the end of the wrong path, set out from the lookout in search of this lagoon. Like foolhardy tribesmen, we just kind of made our own path, and as the climb kept getting harder and steeper and brushier, the likelihood of death increased exponentially. But then, all of a sudden, after one last climb, we were standing at the top of the mountain. No lagoon, but we really didn’t care. The view was stunning, and the realization that we’d just conquered this mountain – no matter how small it was – made us feel like the most accomplished of frontiersmen.
The climb down was a bit treacherous and unnerving at times, but I was on a mini adrenaline kick, so it was a fun little adventure for me. At one point on the way down the path forked again. I told Joe that maybe that was the way to the lagoon and announced my intentions to find out. He did not share my zeal and continued back the way we came. I set out on my own, certain that I was on my way to finding this pristine little oasis. And then five minutes later, I was standing at the edge of a cliff, with nothing in front of me but a 500-foot drop. So that was that. I never saw the lagoon, but it was a spectacular hike anyway. The way back of course led me to that first gorgeous lookout, the one where our chosen path had actually ended. There were a couple other English speakers there, and one offered to take my picture in front of the view. These pictures are actually the sole reason for this paragraph. They look so completely photoshopped, it’s flabbergasting. No one who sees these without the back-story will ever believe these are legit. It looks like I decided to stopped in at Glamor Shots after running five miles. Anyway, here’s one for your enjoyment (click on it to see the bigger version):
A NIGHT WITH SWEDISH LADIES, BOXERS, AND SNAKES
You can pretty much walk the length of East Railay in under 10 minutes. It’s not big, but there are plenty of hotels, shops, places to eat, Internet cafes, and bars along the way. The way our days went, we’d usually be at West Railay for sunset, then walk back to the East side for the rest of the night. Dinner, then usually a drink or two at one of the pubs.
Our last night, we hung out at a place called, appropriately enough, The Last Bar. It’s situated at the end of all the development along East Railay, and was about a twelve-second walk from the bottom of our massive staircase. We hung out with a couple of Swedish ladies we’d met earlier in the week and were treated to a uniquely Thai evening. First, we bore witness to a Thai boxing “show.” Basically, it was a legit Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) fight. It’s not an uncommon thing to see in Thailand, especially in the touristy areas. But I’m not sure how many other places in the world there are where you can walk into a bar, order a cocktail, and then turn around watch a live kickboxing match. It was pretty sweet.
About half an hour after the fight, we were treated to an entirely different kind of awesome: a snake show. Basically, this man with brass balls got into the boxing ring and essentially pestered, poked, and played with very dangerous snakes for our amusement. To clarify, this guy wasn’t some random bar patron or anything – I’m pretty sure this was his job (or at least, his side job; or something he took classes for at DeVry; he was skilled, is what I’m saying).
First, he took a smallish cobra out of its cage. He wiggled it and waggled it by it’s tail, pulled it to and fro on the ring floor, basically begging the snake to snap at him. And snap it did! It never got to our snake man, though. After he was done with the little cobra, he took out some kind of snapping, vicious-looking snake that seemed quite ornery. And then came the show-stopper – a king cobra. This thing scared the bejesesus out of me. But our faithful snake man did his thing, avoided the king cobra’s violent death-lunges, and in the process, impressed and amused the hell out of all of us. It was by far one of the coolest things I’ve seen since I’ve been in Asia.
And then we were done. Our sexy party time in was over. Thailand slapped me around for a bit and then apologized, held me close and assured me that it loved me. It was a roller coaster of a time, but in my opinion, the good far outweighed the bad. Money is money. But whiskey buckets, boat tours, palaces, amazing beaches, mountain-conquerings, snake shows, etc. – those are memories and experiences that will last a lifetime.
We’re cool, Thailand. No hard feelings.