*Party tricks to make friends quickly, plus guide to dining and night life*
20.12.2011 - 13.01.2012 24 °C
I. Party tricks to make friends quickly
Apart from SCUBA diving, my first days on Koh Phangan are spent in relative solitude. Many couples have come here to spend the holidays canoodling in paradise, which means less solo travelers for me to meet. Which is fine. At first I soak up the alone time. I have a beachfront bungalow for $13/night, a bit of a splurge by my lodging standards, but I am enjoying my walks and swims along Chaloklum bay. I decide I could do with some human contact, so when my diving instructor Gem invites me to a Christmas Eve party, I force myself to overcome my antisocial tendencies and show up.
The party is well off the main drag at some place called The Crow Bar, which I find only thanks to Gem’s hand-drawn map. I walk into the open air bar to a big buffet of free food (liquid consumption will be surely compensate) and a festive gathering of local Thais and Westerners in assorted states of sobriety. Gem greets me warmly and urges me to get caught up on the food and drink, so I get a plate and start mingling.
I soon realize most of the crowd is associated with one or another of Chaloklum’s diving schools. So, cool, this is the local dive crowd. I get to chatting with the wife of a dive instructor who tells me there was a party here last night during which the men were competing/showing off by hanging from the rafters and doing ten pull-ups. So, cool, we are talking about this and then suddenly – I really don’t know how this happens – I find myself hanging from a rafter myself, everyone looking up at me expectantly. I know virtually no one here, but they are all about to know me. No, I cannot do ten pull-ups. But I can do ten gymnastics-style leg lifts, bringing my feet up to my hands and back down again, legs straight and toes pointed of course. The stunt demands a combination of control and flexibility (not to mention sobriety) that makes me pretty sure it will not be duplicated tonight. I finish to huge applause; apparently I put the macho pull-upping men in their place. I sheepishly return to my drink, but am no longer invisible - quite the opposite. Everyone knows my name and it will take me weeks to learn theirs. On the whole, though, this ends up being a good way to make fast friends. I am presently invited to a party at someplace called Gemini Bar tomorrow night, then something going on the next night, and the next, then it is New Years…
Thus life goes by at island pace. Thanks to a bout of foul weather, my SCUBA course becomes a drawn-out affair. Many travelers have only three days to get a PADI certification before catching their next flight on, and so are forced to dive on days with strong current and poor visibility. I, on the other hand, can – and do – hold out for better diving conditions. My stay creeps past two weeks. I scout about for cheaper accommodation and my friends help me arrange a bungalow in the prestigious Pikey Villas [see part II below]. I invest $6 in a blue hammock which quickly becomes my favorite perch.
We play Scrabble on rainy days. Note that Scrabble at Pikey Villas must adhere to the Queen’s English; over my vociferous objections I have been denied credit for many a legitimate word because although it was in the bloody Oxford English Dictionary, it was branded with that terrible scarlet letter A, that unpardonable shame, “American origin.” Whatever. When not being hazed for my nationality, I feel warmly accepted. I am not yet an ‘official’ resident of Pikey Villas – for that you must pass out in the Crow Bar and most likely wake up with explicit drawings on your physical person, courtesy your artistically inspired friends. But I cannot run an errand in town without seeing people I know. And when I pass lobster-hued 21 year olds in neon green “Full Moon Party" T-shirts, I cannot help sighing to myself, “ah, the tourists.”
I suppose I have become a self-hating backpacker, inasmuch as I have grown weary of hanging out with people who are every bit as transient as I. I enjoy being anchored in the local community and moreover, having grown up and lived in large cities my whole life, I am fascinated with the day-to-day functioning of this little village. I observe how activity centers around the key local joints, how information flows through the social network, and what constitutes worthwhile information. I note the overlaps and gaps between Thai and Western Chaloklum, starting with the many Thai-Western couples (usually a Western man with a Thai woman). In short, it is a bit of an anthropological exercise carried out with cocktail in hand, perhaps summed up in the following.
II. Chaloklum dining and night life
World’s End Café looks squarely out at the dock that all the dive boats use, weather permitting. (When waves are too high they use the island’s main port, Thong Sala.) Run by a British couple with a personable 3 year old son, World’s End has good breakfasts and coffee, sandwiches and other fare. It is perfectly situated to observe goings-on at the pier, and its proprietors are always in the know. Go for “brekkie” and you will learn whose boats went out that day and how full they were. Go for afternoon coffee and you hear whether the boats had to turn around before reaching Sail Rock and whose boat almost capsized.
The Lost Dog (a.k.a. “The Dog”) is a mainstay of Chaloklum’s modest nightlife strip along the ocean. Run by a British man and his Thai wife, it boasts a pool table that is home to frequent tournaments with plenty of drinking of course. You can enjoy a pizza while you wait for your turn on the pool table because it is conveniently located right next to…
Café de la Moca, a delicious Italian restaurant run by an Italian man and his Thai wife. Twice a week is pizza night, and the melting-hot cheese really hits the spot when you get tired of curry. Which may take a while because the options are so good. Such as,
Texas (no I do not know why it is named that) makes, hands down, the best Massaman curry. Run by a Thai couple, it is situated on a corner that everyone passes if they are going anywhere. Have dinner there and you will see your friends speed by on their way out. Dine late and you will hear via the street traffic grapevine who is going to be in pain tomorrow.
The Old Lady’s is owned by a diminutive but slightly plump white-haired Thai woman. I am unsure of the restaurant’s actual name because no one ever calls it anything other than The Old Lady’s. From the street I initially notice its exquisite array of orchids, hanging roots and other plants. The food remains a mystery to me because the Old Lady has not yet opened for the season and no one knows when she will. Happily, my last week on the island, she opens her proverbial doors (the whole place is open air) and… Yum.
Zhaba, also on ‘the strip,’ is a Russian-run restaurant and bar with a faithful clientele of compatriots. Walk in and you will think Chaloklum is a Russian town. I once order tonic water and lime, and instead get a vodka tonic. I’m sure it was an honest mistake; no one walks in there just orders water. Really, my only complaint is the long bookshelf with untold literary treasures surely offering years worth of erudite reading… all inaccessible to me because every last volume is in Russian. This irks me. I am used to strolling up to bookshelves in cafes and hostels and having my pick of four languages worth of books - not none.
The Crow’s Nest (a.k.a. “The Crowie”) is tucked away 200 meters down a dirt road. You would have to know about it or be of an exploratory disposition to find yourself there. It is run by Chris from Estonia and his wife A from Thailand (and I do not know how else to spell her name, it is simply pronounced like the letter “A”). The Crowie is a favored spot for a nightcap and throws great parties. Watch out for absinthe, which may come at you when you least expect it.
Pikey Villas is a group of wooden bungalows scattered behind the Crow’s Nest. So christened by its inhabits, a colorful crowd of local expats mostly from the UK. Many are instructors at Sail Rock Diving School and can be found, if not doing pull-ups at the Crowie, supporting the ever-popular…
Gemini Bar, a full bar recently added to the Sail Rock school. Gemini hosts great Christmas, New Years, birthday, and just-because parties that begin with a delicious buffet and proceed to impressive amounts of drinking. People sometimes end up in the pool which, being unheated, is actually quite chilly. But they are probably too drunk to notice.
Seven Eleven. This beacon of Thailand’s development constitutes a major point of activity in town, with constant foot traffic in and around. Several food carts rest right outside the stoor like symbiotic species, so your Seven Eleven run can be combined with grilled chicken or a banana pancake. We sometimes go for a late night ice cream, eaten just outside on a dirty stone bench beside a perpetually overflowing garbage can. This bench serves as a passing hangout for the whole town, of course arriving in varying states of sobriety (and here please envision a long-tailed curve, distribution strongly weighted towards the intoxicated end of the spectrum).
Omega Bar (pronounced “Omeeega” if you are a Brit) holds jam sessions every Wednesday night. Any and everyone is welcome get on the mike with a guitar, or take a turn on the keyboard or drums. Sometimes there are talented people making brilliant music. Granted, everyone is eventually so wasted and happy that were the music horrible, no one would care. I have verified this by taking a turn on the keyboard.
Baan Tai – A town on the south side of Koh Phangan, down towards Had Rin (of the infamous full moon parties), with a decidedly more active nightlife than Chaloklum. One evening, several upstanding gentlemen go down to Baan Tai for a refined evening of entertainment wind up engaging some… how to put this delicately… professional services of a personal nature. Baan Tai is henceforth a easy means of referencing said occasion, generally in the interest of making someone blush.
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January 13, 2012
This morning I go for brekkie with friends at World’s End. We chat about the previous night’s shenanigans, keeping one eye on the weather over Chaloklum Bay. The water is wavy and the pier quiet; the diving boats are using the more protected Thong Sala port today. The sky is an intense mixture of brilliant sun and fast-moving rain clouds. We get back to Pikey Villas just as the rain starts, settling into hammocks on the porch to wait out the monsoon. I eat an orange, spitting the seeds over the railing. A red hawk circles overhead. I wait until he perches in a palm tree, then lift my binoculars for closer observation. I am not an avid bird watcher, but I like this hawk (he is familiar by now), and even more like the idea of having time to sit and peer at a bird. Today is my last day on Koh Phangan; tomorrow I leave for Laos. The matter grew somewhat forced - my Thailand visa is on its last day. But I also feel ready to move on. I came here for a SCUBA diving certificate, but seem to have found something else: Peace. Now it is time to trade comfort for the unfamiliar.