*The island of firsts*
18.12.2011 - 20.12.2011 24 °C
After two lovely weeks together in Thailand, my mother departs. My guesthouse in Krabi Town that night has a room with a window for 250 baht or one with no window for 150 baht. I decide to save a couple bucks and skip the window. I have a cup of tea with the owner who is very friendly, encouraging me to spend some time in town, offering advice about where to go next, and offering to book me a ticket onward. I have my sights set on Koh Phangan, an island on the other side of the peninsula, but he is pushing the nearby Koh Lanta – he has lots of friends there and can tell me all the good places, the weather is better, etc. I weigh the two equally unknown islands, still readjusting to traveling solo. He notes my tension. “Easy, easy,” he says. “Some people, they are very fix in the mind. No able to go with what is right there. Koh Lanta is very nice, I think you will like it. Maybe I can go with you, show you the good places, I know lots of people there.” I feel… not easy… oddly pressured, in fact. I retreat for the moment, saying I’ll figure it out in the morning.
I stay up late working on a grad school application, at some point drift off, and wake up in total darkness. The utter lack of light juxtaposed with my watch saying it is 10am is disorienting. ‘Windows are important,’ I muse, shaking off the cobwebs. I decide to leave for Koh Phangan today, in equal parts because I do not fancy another night in a windowless room and because the guesthouse owner is maybe a little too friendly. He seems disappointed that I am leaving, and disappointed in me for rejecting his recommendation of Koh Lanta. Still, he will book me a ‘joint ticket’ (traveling via bus and boat) for 600 baht. I saw the same thing for 500 baht down the street, but I would feel like a jerk going behind his back to save $3. I shrug, pay up, thank him, and look forward to moving on.
The journey begins with a minibus from my guesthouse to a bus station, continues with a large bus across the peninsula to the port city of Surat Thani, and ends with a ferry to the larger and more well-trod island of Koh Samui and finally on to Koh Phangan. This goes from approximately 11am - 7pm. For most of the journey I feel like tourist cattle, branded by the ‘joint ticket’ sticker on my shirt. In the ample time I have to sit and think, it strikes me that you have to work very hard to get off the tourist grid here: The guesthouse owners are all so friendly, happy to book you a joint ticket to your next destination, and since you don’t know the next locale they will gladly set you up with a guesthouse there, which will in turn shepherd you along the well-traveled way…
Thus my inordinate pleasure finding myself on a ferry to an island where I have no accommodation booked, no one expecting me, and no one to guide me. All I know is that I want to head to the north part of the island because (1) there are several SCUBA diving schools there, and (2) the southern tip of the island, where the (in)famous full moon parties take place, is not my scene. Shortly before we dock, I flip through Lonely Planet and pick a small northern beach town called Mae Hat. After negotiating a ride there, I tell the driver I have no accommodation booked and ask if he knows anywhere simple and cheap. He delivers me to a place with bungalows by the beach for about $13/night. By now it is completely dark so I cannot see much, but I register a few longtail boats floating on dark, quietly lapping waters. This will do for the night.
I wake up in the morning to the sounds of surf rolling in as beautiful a scene as I could have dreamed. I have ambitious plans for today: Find a diving school and secure lodging for the next two weeks (this period includes Christmas and New Years, when even quiet Koh Phangan fills up). I set my sights on a town about five kilometers west of Mae Hat called Chaloklum which has several dive operations. I decide that 5km is a reasonable walking distance and I could use the exercise, and set out around 9am. But it is kind of a boring walk, and is turning into a hot day. Which gets me thinking. On the way out of town, I couldn’t help but notice several shops with motor scooters for rent, and the thought did cross my mind… In fact, I am undertaking a very inefficient and labor-intensive day – walking five kilometers to and from a day of running around town – quite simply because I have never driven a motor scooter before and am scared to try.
Oh dear. When one part of me starts calling another part of me names (chicken, wimp, etc.), interesting things usually ensue. Case and point, I am now doing an about-face, walking back to town, entering a shop and inquiring about a scooter. The woman asks, Automatic or manual? I ask which is easier since it is my first time. Her face goes white and I see her trying to transmute shock into polite concern as she explains that there is no insurance, the roads here are difficult, etc. I quickly say yes, you are right, it’s a bad idea, I understand, thank you anyway, and make my retreat. I know something about the importance of ‘saving ‘face’ in Thai culture, if either of us has any left to save.
Lesson learned. At the next shop, I just stroll in and ask for an automatic. The man has to show me how to turn it on, after which he reminds me to brake with the left hand (rear brake) only, so he must has some idea of my experience. But we seem to have a tacit ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ agreement. I thank him, fasten my helmet, attempt to gently give it some gas, and with a whiplash-inducing jolt, I am off.
To be perfectly candid: I am nervous as hell and my driving is atrocious. But by the time I have shopped several dive schools guesthouses and selected one of each, I am starting to get the hang of it. Which is perhaps why, upon finding myself with time and gas to spare, I take a turnoff leading to one “Paradise Waterfall.” Parts of the road, which is scarily steep, are dirt, while other parts were once paved but are now so cracked that they are worse than dirt. I somehow make it up, walk five minutes to the waterfall and sit down to have some fruit for lunch. I am trembling.
The waterfall is nice but not very interesting, so I soon leave, dreading the return path. Happily, I regain the main road intact. Which is perhaps why, having yet more time and gas to spare, I decide to check out Had Khom beach, which looks close enough on the map. The dirt road leading there is longer than I expect. It also has some steep grades which reveal my brakes to be in less than ideal repair. All told, it is slightly less harrowing than Paradise Waterfall but nonetheless nerve-wracking. But well worth the effort: I arrive to an idyllic strip of sand with a rustic bungalow resort, some hammocks in the shade, and a few mellow sunbathers. It is so lovely that I ask if there are any rooms; I’d love to spend a couple nights here. The woman laughs. Apparently, despite its end-of-the-world feel, this quaint little corner has been discovered.
I leave well before dark; no need to attempt night driving just yet. When I return to Mae Hat with both myself and the bike intact, I’m not sure who is more surprised, me or the shop owner. I know it’s no big deal – people drive motor scooters all the time – but I do feel some pride and pleasure at having survived the day. And tomorrow I will be initiated into the art of SCUBA, learning to breathe underwater. This is turning out to be an island of firsts.
I try to approach new things with a cautious respect, not assuming I will be any good. That said, I suspect I will do alright with SCUBA because I am pretty comfortable in the water. Sure enough, I take to it like a fish. After a couple inane but necessary hours of PADI videos, we get our the equipment and get in the pool. I put the regulator in my mouth, start breathing through it, and slowly slip below the surface. I am breathing underwater. It does not matter that there is nothing more to see than the pale blue cement walls of the pool. This is surely the realization of some childhood fantasy of mine.
After a couple sessions in the pool, we move on to open water dives. The main site near Koh Phangan is Sail Rock, a little island poking up in the middle of the ocean about an hour away (though it can take up to two hours if the weather is rough, and if the weather is rough enough the boats will not go). During my five dives I perform the obligatory skills (especially clearing my mask – I get to practice that a lot because it keeps filling up) and get lost in a fantasy world of fish. I end each day exhausted but happy, and usually catch a nap on the way back. Here is the scene on the return boat ride: